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05 April 2010

The Revenge of Big Sunscreen

This entry is a response to several comments made about my post from last year, in which I dissected a Fabutan advertisement made up to look like a newspaper. Blogger comments are limited to 4,096 characters, so my response to the comments grew into its own post. You can find the original post here.

Hi, everyone.

First of all, thank you for your comments. I certainly appreciate the input and the opportunity for discussion on this topic. As my response exceeds the 4,096 character limit imposed by Blogger, my response to your comments can be found here.

I'll respond to the comments in the order in which they were received.


preparing your skin for summer is a good thing. Either put it in moderation indoors... or go outside not knowing the UV index, an just burn yourself???

This commenter seems to be suggesting that by tanning you are "preparing your skin for summer". This seems to be a myth. According to the World Health Organization, "A dark tan on white skin only offers an SPF of about 4." The Canadian Cancer Society agrees, stating, "A tan offers almost no protection from sunlight or burning."

This comment also suggests a false dichotomy: either tan indoors (receiving a stable level of radiation) or walk around unprotected outdoors (receiving an unknown level of radiation). One easy alternative comes to mind: wear sunscreen. Also, most weather sites list UV indices alongside current conditions, so it is unnecessary to "go outside not knowing the UV index".

Fabutan's clear suggestion (in their editorial-style cartoon) that "the experts" claim that UV radiation poses cancer risks only because they stand to profit financially from the sale of sunscreen is not only absurd, but harmful. That is rank conspiracy-theory nonsense. The evidence that ultraviolet radiation increases the risk of developing various cancers are legion.


it is pretty obvious why MEN's skin cancer cases have increased... Men are more likely to work OUTDOORS and burn and are less likely to tan or even to use sunscreen.

Although I agree that it's possible that men are more likely to work outdoors than women, I disagree that it's "pretty obvious" that this is responsible for the increase in melanoma incidences; it certainly could be responsible for any increased risk of cancer in men over women, but not for an increased risk of cancer in men over time. If this were the case, then it would necessitate a significant rise in the proportion of men working outdoors over the last several decades. Although I was not able to find any statistics specifically relating to the trend of indoor and outdoor work over time, I find this proposition questionable. If you are asserting that this is the case, please provide evidence.

Also... YES Fabutan is tryign to make money. Who isn't? But the difference is tanning isn't a Multi-billion dollar a year industry like the sunscreen industry.

When I stated that Fabutan was trying to make money, I did so only to illustrate that their characterisation of "Big Sunscreen" as a money-grubbing industry is irrelevant; of course every business is geared toward making money—to claim otherwise would be absurd! But it seemed that Fabutan was attempting to poison the well while ignoring the fact that they are also trying to make money. And I'm curious as to the relevance of your assertion that sunscreen is a multi-billion dollar/year industry. What are you trying to imply?

You are insane. Last year the Canadian Gov't issued tannign beds as a carcinogen... teh same level as BIRTH CONTROL PILLS, salted fish and red wine! That's where that came from. So pretty much our gov't says you have jsut as much chance of getting cancer from drinking red wine as using a tanning bed.

I'll assume that your denigration of my sanity was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the passage you cited, rather than a simple ad hominem. It was actually the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer that initially classified tanning beds as a Group 1 carcinogens (although it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the Canadian government followed suit), but thank you for clarifying that it was these reports that Fabutan was referring to in their advertisement. In case you're interested, you can find the full text of the reports here:

I recommend taking a look: they're eminently readable and well-referenced. You will be required to log in to view more than the abstract, but registration is free.

I find myself puzzled by your obvious upset at the fact that tanning beds received Group 1 classification, "teh same level as BIRTH CONTROL PILLS, salted fish and red wine!" You state that this means that "our gov't says you have jsut as much chance of getting cancer from drinking red wine as using a tanning bed". I'm sorry to disappoint you, but that's simply not true. The Group 1 classification indicates that the substance in question is "carcinogenic to humans"; it does not state that all Group 1 substances are equally carcinogenic. But even if it did, your argument is specious. Even if salted fish, red wine, birth control pills, and tanning beds were equally carcinogenic (although comparing the consumption of foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals to time spent in a tanning bed presents a conundrum, to be sure), that does not indicate that the danger of indoor tanning is in any way lessened. If you were to find out tomorrow that drinking cola posed the same cancer risk as smoking cigarettes, does that lessen the danger posed by tobacco? No. It does suggest that you might want to at least consider cutting back on your Pepsi consumption. From Part A, above:

The Group confirmed that combined oestrogen-progestagen oral contraceptives increase the risk for hepatocellular carcinoma...

I'm sorry if this news disappoints you, but oral contraceptives are linked to increased incidences of cancer. Although some women are unaware of the risks (which also include deep-vein thromboses, which can lead to strokes), many conclude that the risk is worth the benefit. Presumably you make the same cost/benefit analysis when you decide to drive your car to work in the morning, although roughly 40,000 people die in motor-vehicle collisions every year in the United States alone.

My point is that few things are risk-free. But it makes sense to limit exposure to risk where possible, especially if there is little or no corresponding gain.

Also just to let you know... anybody that lives north of Atlanta, Georgia doesn't get enough vitamin D from the sun in the winter months... here in good old Canada that is just about 6 months! Half a year! You would need to drink about 8 glasses of milk a day to get the minimum amount of Vitamin D from milk.

You're saying here that vitamin D deficiency is a serious concern, and here we agree. (You may notice that I've changed my tune a bit on this point; I make every attempt to remain open to being convinced by the preponderance of evidence.) Canada's Food Guide recommends 200 UI of vitamin D each day for adults under 51. However, many dietitians argue that this is insufficient, and 1,000 IU or more may be beneficial. Although two cups (500 mL) of milk will provide you with 90% of your RDI of vitamin D, you would need ten or eleven to reach the 1,000 IU recommended by the Harvard School of Public Health.

But tanning is not the only alternative to drinking milk! Taking a vitamin supplement may be a better choice than going to a tanning salon, both in terms of monetary cost and in terms of overall effect on one's health.

Too much or too little of anything is bad!

Although "moderation in all things" may seem like a fairly good rule of thumb, it is obviously not universally applicable, and your assertion is therefore flawed. We can all think of plenty of activities that are harmful even when undertaken in moderation. (I'll avoid invoking Godwin's Law, here.) You claim that "too little of anything is bad", and you may be tautologically correct, but I know of no evidence that none is "too little" when it comes to suntanning.

Yes teh studies have been done... tanning beds apprently cause cancer... OH WAIT did they mention that sunscreen companies funded these studies? oh and did they mention they included skin type one tanners? Skin type one tanners include albino or fair skinned, freckled people who are discouraged to tan indoors and outdoors because they burn very easily.

This appeal to motive is a logical fallacy. The fact that "Big Sunscreen" has a vested interest in such studies is irrelevant unless you can show an undeclared conflict of interest which resulted in fraudulent research. Oh, and the studies that I have quoted throughout this rebuttal? Not funded by sunscreen companies!

Also, I think that it is important that users with all skin types are included in the studies. Although users with lighter skin are nominally discouraged from tanning, the darkening of the skin is the predominant motivator for tanning bed use, making tanning more prevalent among those with lighter skin.

Maybe you should quit your day job and go work for Cosmo.

I'm sure that they'd pay better.


The guy who wrote this has a degree in Computer Science....not a phd in medicine of any sort.

You are correct, I hold no degree in any relevant medial field (dermatology would be ideal in this case, I think). But you'll note that my post quotes from the Canadian Cancer Society, and I'll follow it up with a quotation from the World Health Organization, as published in the Lancet:

The use of UV-emitting tanning devices is widespread in many developed countries, especially among young women. A comprehensive meta-analysis concluded that the risk of cutaneous melanoma is increased by 75% when use of tanning devices starts before 30 years of age. Additionally, several case—control studies provide consistent evidence of a positive association between the use of UV-emitting tanning devices and ocular melanoma.

Unfortunately, Maddie's comment is also a red herring. She commits the genetic fallacy by suggesting that because the argument does not originate with an expert in a relevant field it is invalid, regardless of its content. Although expertise is a fairly good heuristic to use when evaluating advice, it is important to remember that arguments ought to be evaluated on their own merits. If I may quote Gallileo:

In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.

Of course the "Good Job dummy" is just icing on the ad hominem cake.


I would just like to know if you went into that Fabutan and talked to one of the staff? They attempt to educate their clients about both the benefits and the risks of tanning. They promote SMART TANNING as opposed to safe tanning, as there is no such thing.

I think that this is my favourite comment, because it makes no attempt to dispute the safety issue.

No, I haven't gone into Fabutan to talk to a staff member; I'm not interested in tanning. I'm pleased to hear that they accurately discuss the risks of tanning with their clients.

My issue isn't with Fabutan employees, but with the advertising campaign portrayed here. It misrepresents the evidence (calling it "scare tactics"), and suggests that sunscreen corporations are lying about the risks of tanning with the sole intent of obtaining our money. It is outrageously misleading in its treatment of the facts.

It's propaganda. That's my problem.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that moderate indoor tanning is by necessity harmful. The original post was merely a response to some of the misleading claims and wild innuendo made in the Fabutan advertisement.

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